I got the question today. You know the one, if you’re an English teacher. The one about whether the author truly intended something or other I pulled from the story.
Let me back up. As a teacher of tenth grade American Literature and Composition, it falls to me to teach the research paper. I have taught it so many years now that I have it down to a science. Last year, I decided to walk students through each step by writing a paper myself. I was intrigued by a short story I had not read until last year. It’s called “A New England Nun,” and it was written by Regionalist writer Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. It isn’t a particularly interesting story, but I found it intriguing because the protagonist, Louisa Ellis, so clearly exhibits typical signs and symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. I wrote a research paper proving the following thesis: Louisa Ellis, a character in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “A New England Nun,” exhibits signs and symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
Because the story is obscure, I am able to answer students who tell me they can’t find anything on Huck Finn. (I actually got that one this week!) We read the story so they can see how I was able to draw conclusions about the character and also how I was able to take notes on the story for note cards.
One of my students asked me whether Freeman intended to create a character with OCD. I can’t answer that. I’m not sure Freeman was aware of the disorder. She might have been. Even if she wasn’t, people have been exhibiting OCD behaviors throughout history, and she could possibly have modeled Louisa on someone she knew who was “like that.” So my answer to the student was that I don’t know. I can’t prove it. But I asked my students this — just because an author didn’t intend to put something in a story, does that mean it isn’t there?
For example, J.R.R. Tolkien is famously quoted as saying he hated allegory. Yet, I find it very easy to read his writing as allegory. Does that necessarily make me wrong?
I explained to my students that we all bring things to a story that a writer can’t control, and we make meaning of their writing based on those things we bring. If we make a connection or notice a symbol or develop a theory based on that writing because of what we brought to it, is it necessarily wrong because the writer didn’t think of it (or we don’t know whether the writer thought of it)?
For the first time when I’ve been asked “the question,” I could see wheels turning. The students considered what I said, and I think they found it valid. It was a far cry from the way I used to approach teaching literature to students who didn’t draw the same conclusions as I did — they just didn’t have much experience as a reader. How could they be expected to “get it”?
I recommend a book I read last year called How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster. There is a way to get students to understand that digging into a text can make it more interesting and “gratifying.” The book is an engaging read for English teachers who are interested in learning how to get kids to do this.